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Translating Shakespeare for Dubbing

Translating Shakespeare for Dubbing

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Published by: api-3741779 on Oct 15, 2008
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In the Footsteps of Giants
Translating Shakespeare for Dubbing
By Robert Paquin, Ph.D.

translator is a tracker, stepping in the tracks of the writer who came before, careful not to step on anybody's toes, alert to the direction the tracks are pointing, attentive to the scenery, the context, trying not to disturb anything. What happens when a translator attempts to walk in the tracks of a giant?

Just before Christmas, I got a call from a Montreal dubbing studio. The speaker wanted to know if I was free to write the French script of a film for dubbing. I said, "Sure, what is it?" "Oh," the woman said, "it's calledTitus." An alarm bell went off in my head. I said, "Titus? The onlyTitus I know is Titus Andronicus, by Shakespeare." She said, "Well, I don't know about that. All I know is it's out as a video already, but it's not been shown in theatres in Montreal and there is no French version, and we want to make a French version to be distributed as a video."

So I went to my neighborhood video store, where I'd seen the box on the shelf, though I'd not yet rented it. And there it was! The blue face on the blue cover which said, in large Roman capitals, "TITUS, with Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Harry Lennix, directed by Julie Taymor." Sure enough, on the back of the box, in the writing credits, I saw, "Screenplay by Julie Taymor and William Shakespeare." I had read the playTitus

Andronicus as an undergraduate, but had never studied it and had never seen it

performed. I rented the video so I could watch it before getting back to my client, Covitec, the big Montreal dubbing studio. I wanted to see how much Julie Taymor had adapted the play.

A film is a translation; written words are interpreted in images and sound. All films are a cinematic translation of a written script. But sometimes the script itself is the translation of a novel. In this case, a play. But what about this film? Were they going to be Shakespeare's lines, in verse, or was it a prose adaptation?


During the first six minutes of this 162-minute film, there is no dialogue, but such powerful images! Stylized violence with a sound track of TV cartoon lines, air raid sirens, the roar of bomber airplanes, explosions, a boy sobbing, then silence, then the cheer of a crowd, then drums accompanying the jerky ballet movements of Roman soldiers covered in blue dust. After six minutes, a camera-shot from below shows Anthony Hopkins slowly taking off his helmet and shouting: "Hail Rome, victorious, in thy mourning weeds!" I knew I was in the presence of giants.

I watched the film, riveted. Then I called the dubbing studio again to discuss this. How long were they going to give me to write this? The person I spoke to had not seen the film. I explained that it was a play by Shakespeare and that it was all in verse, and therefore must also be in verse in French. And I couldn't do that in a week. Luckily, the material I needed wasn't ready yet, and I had a few days to get ready. So while somebody was making a time-coded VHS version of the film, someone else was preparing a typed copy of the entire script, and another person was "detecting" the film, that is to say, observing all the mouth sounds, words, inspirations, expirations, yells, smacking of lips, and so forth produced by the screen actors and noting them with a lead pencil on a strip of white 35 mm film, indicating, synchronously with the image, precisely when the lips of the actors were closed to pronounce bilabial consonants likem,b, orp, or half-closed to pronounce semi-labials likef,v,w, orr.[1] While this was being done, I read the original play by Shakespeare and all the critical material I could find, both on the play and on Julie Taymor's adaptation of it.[2] I rushed to Montreal's largest public library and borrowed two translations of Titus Andronicus. One, in prose, by Fran\u00e7ois-Victor Hugo, son of the great 19th-century French poet, and the other in verse, by J. B. Fort.[3] The latter is a bilingual edition, with English on one page and French on the opposite page.

The Giants

First, I had to read about the play. Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's first tragedy, and there are doubts about his authorship of the play. Indeed, for many critics, the patent barbarity of theme, the apparent crudity of workmanship, and the bloody succession of unrelieved horror place the tragedy among Shakespeare's doubtful plays, despite the fact

that Titus Andronicus was published under his name and is attributed to him by his
contemporaries. [4] Actually, there are four main theories of Shakespeare's authorship:
1. that he had no hand in Titus Andronicus;
2. that he is the author of the tragedy, probably an early experiment written under the

influence of predecessors;
3. that he put very little into the play; or
4. that he touched up, more or less perfunctorily, an older play.

The author of this older play could be Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, or George Peele. Indeed, The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's first tragedy, may have been a rewrite of an older play by someone else. But internal evidence strongly suggests that Shakespeare did have a hand inTitus.[5] There are too many parallels and correspondences between it and such classics as

Macbethand King Lear for it to have been written by anyone else.

I can imagine the actors of "the Right Honourable the Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke, and Earle of Sussex" going to the young Shakespeare one day and saying, "Hey, Bill, listen. We've got a play here we'd like to perform, but first we want you to read it over and make it a little more presentable and poetic. We'll give you a couple of weeks to do this, okay?" Something like the phone call from the woman at the dubbing studio who gave me a week to translate/adapt the filmTitus for dubbing in French, without even being aware that the dialogue was in blank verse.

Julie Taymor is a stage director whose stature as film director became firmly established withTitus, her first feature film. She had directed the off-Broadway stage production of the play, which had been a success and was well reviewed, and she thought "it would make a great movie."[6] Julie Taymor had also directed the stage production of The Lion King, which was a tremendous success on Broadway. She is presently shooting a film on the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, wife of the renowned mural painter, Diego Rivera.

Julie Taymor showed her script ofTitus to Sir Anthony Hopkins, whose film career covers 95 feature films over a period of 40 years (who could forget the sinister Dr Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs?). He "liked the screen adaptation," liked her concepts, and


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